She is a girl between 14 and 20 years old, alone or in a family that has economic problems, in the south of Nigeria; she is approached by a “maman” , a 40-years -old-woman with a wealthy appearance who invites her to go to Europe promising her a job and easy money. Or she is contacted inside one of the many Pentecostal churches that have recently been built where she thinks she can find a safe environment, in this case it could even be a “shepherd” to talk to her. Sometimes she is sucked in through a message via Facebook or Whatsapp coming from a future “boyfriend” who tells her he is waiting for her in Italy and has already applied for asylum and invites her to join him. In other cases, she undergoes magical rituals during which she makes promises that cannot be broken or otherwise something bad will happen to her or her family members.
The journey to Italy is long, from Nigeria she reaches Niger, then Libya, to Tripoli, then she climbs on the raft that will take her to Italy on a nothing-but-painless trip. She will almost certainly be raped, even by the police patrolling the borders, while a network of organizers, the “drivers”, constantly follows her journey; they are the ones “helping” her to cross borders and reach our coasts. Once in Italy, after crossing the threshold of a reception center, the girl will be told to call a phone number that was given to her at the beginning of her ordeal, she will thus get in touch with those who she thought will have given her the dream of a better life, yet instead they will put her in the hell of prostitution on the Italian streets. The “maman” is yet another trafficker in human beings: young and very young girls from Africa, held up by ethnic and Italian criminal organizations exploiting the weaknesses of the reception system, a transnational network that generates dizzying – and obviously totally illegal – earnings, so that it is difficult to say how many girls are on the streets, certainly tens of thousands, between 50 and 100 thousand.
The story is more or less always the same, with little variations: in the background threats to the family, torture in case of rebellion, the very real risk of dying. The issue of prostitution tied to the trafficking of human beings has become yet again topical when the Pope, last March 19, in a preparatory meeting of the next Synod of Young People (October 2018) spoke with Blessing Okoedion, a young victim of trafficking, from Nigeria, who asked Francis: “What worries me most is the high demand, there are too many clients and many of these, as it has been said, are Catholics. “I wonder and I ask you: is the Church, still too chauvinist, able to ask herself truthfully about this high demand of clients?” Bergoglio’s response was rather long and complex, even harsh: “It is a crime against humanity, it is a crime against humanity and it is born from a sick mentality: women must be exploited”, he said.
Francis then spoke of a clientele made of many “baptized”. The theme is of course dramatic because of its many implications, but there are those who have long fought against the double scourge of trafficking and prostitution, such as the Pope John XXIII Community. “Girls are contacted today also through social networks, in particular Facebook and Whatsapp – explains Irene Ciambezi, who is committed to the community and author of the book “We are not for sale”, about teenage slaves who are lured – girls who have not yet finished secondary school, they are 14-15 years old – as they are at a stage of their lives where they have not yet developed a personality and they do not have clear objectives for the future; The origin of this situation may be a very poor family context, for which there is a lack of sufficient resources to finish school. “When it is not possible to move forward in education,” Irene explains, “one easily ends up in the networks of traffickers. They lure children, girls of a different age group than in the past when the victims were aged 24-25. The promise of an easy job in Europe is at the base; during the trip then – by using a mobile phone, social networks – they rely on someone who “guides” their migration”.
The main route is still Libya, which is now shifting to Algeria, yet always through Niger: “Along the way there is a whole network of intermediaries accompanying the girl, the latter carries a mobile phone number with which she will have to contact someone in Italy. Intermediaries organize, for example, the crossing of various borders, such as the border between Niger and Libya. Once on the coast they have to wait for the raft, cross the Mediterranean Sea, hit the Italian coast, and then get transferred to the various centers. “At that point – the girls are told to call the number that was given to them at the beginning. And it is at this point when the final “driver” appears, the person that will lead them to the final stretch of their destiny. This “journey”, costs 35-40 thousand Euros, a very high amount, after all this is a characteristic of trafficking for sexual purposes, yet another form of exploitation for which there are many intermediaries to pay, from the “maman”, to the “drivers”, to other kinds of mafias. The phenomenon is always changing: until now the important role has been played by these mamans, women in their 40s who shuttle Italy-Nigeria and back, to organize the traffic. “Today, however – Irene Ciambezi observes – there are also churches that are born in an absolutely autonomous way and that are completely unrelated to the Protestant world, Pentecostal churches in which the pastors themselves are organizers or intermediaries of these forms of exploitation. The role of these “fiancées” who deceive and lure is also growing. The boyfriends themselves are in the network of asylum seekers.
From the experience on the field and from the collaboration with the Forces of Law and Order, “a connivance between the African and the Italian criminal organizations, like the ’ndrangheta and the Camorra, emerges more and more”, in particular in the southern regions. The report of the 2017 Anti-Mafia Investigative Commission also speaks of this. But the phenomenon goes through the reception centers: “Traffickers and exploiters know our reception system and how to organize themselves in order to recover the victims as soon as they receive the girl’s phone call. Then they will be trained to stay on the road.
“To fight exploitation – Irene says – we believe that we need a very strong network of collaboration, we have 25 street units throughout Italy, properly trained, but we also have many volunteers among those who come from Agesci, Focolare, Catholic Action. We need then to cooperate with the police. However as soon as a girl is taken off the street, she is replaced with another one, the turn-over is very high. The stories are almost daily, only recently, a girl who claimed she was in her 20s got in touch with the Pope John XXIII Community; after a series of interviews, a relationship of trust was established and it was easily discovered that she was 17 years old. She asked for help and was taken to another region for security reasons. But equally important, is the work that must be done with the family of origin, the threats of retaliation are in fact very strong. When possible, family members in Nigeria should also be helped to change regions and homes. In many ways, the rediscovery of a religious dimension is important.
In the background, the theme of the high demand remains, the real engine of prostitution earnings. “It is evident – Irene points out – that customers are now looking for more vulnerable people because they will submit to whatever they want and ask them, these are girls who come from other countries so it is easier to ask for sexual services of any kind; and age is increasingly low, there is a problem of dignity of the person and also gender equality because women underage are exploited. Various associations are proposing to introduce an administrative sanction, after the French model – for the clients. A crucial step to begin to tackle this phenomenon.
Gabriella Bottani, a Combonian religious woman of the international anti-trafficking network of religious congregations, “Thalita Kum”, points out that the phenomenon has assumed a worldwide dimension. The recruitment, she explains, takes place exploiting economic needs, leveraging families, then again emerges the involvement of the Pentecostal churches. Another chapter is that of magical rites. “The girl – Sister Bottani explains – is placed before a religious leader and pieces of her clothing, and hair, are taken away from her. She must then promise not to rebel and remain faithful to the commitment made. If this constraint is broken, something bad may happen to her or to her family members. That is why the person does not rebel, she is afraid.
However, “it is the presence of a clientele – the religious woman observes – that produces an enormous flow of money. This great amount of money is what moves this type of market and the reason why traffic is continuously fed and people are “consumed” through sex. I don’t know to what extent customers are aware that they are consuming a person, moreover in front of minors there are no doubts that we are facing a crime. “There is a reversal of things – Sister Bottani observes – adults should be the people who take care of minors, but now we have minors who take care of the needs and necessities of adults, not to mention that a boundary is broken, that of sexuality”.
The reintegration of girls who are taken off the road is neither obvious nor easy: “Reintegration is possible when there are girls who have no deep wounds, who already have a prior education and have more solid life paths. These are difficult paths and not so many that manage to rethink and reorganize their lives”.